A thorny rose for Erdoğan
It is not a matter of speculation anymore whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has his eyes set on the presidency, which he clearly wants to turn into an elected executive office by 2014, when President Abdullah Gül’s term in office ends.
Erdoğan believes that such a system is best for Turkey. His argument, and that of his close advisers, is that this system will ensure stability in a country rife with debilitating political factionalism. When asked if the system being proposed is akin to the U.S. or French ones, on the other hand, Erdoğan responds that it will be a Turkish system based on Turkey’s specific needs.
The problem begins here. By indicating that an executive presidency will expedite the implementation of political decisions and by suggesting that the model to emerge will be a “specifically Turkish model,” those who support Erdoğan’s quest are, in effect, pointing at a presidency unencumbered by checks and balances.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) narrative on this topic in fact has no indication as to who will control the president once Turkey’s system is changed in this radical way. Erdoğan’s total lack of tolerance for any opposition or criticism, when combined with his increasingly apparent authoritarian tendencies, inevitably leaves many Turks concerned about what an executive presidency under him will mean in real terms.
Judging by certain press reports there are even senior members of the AKP who are not totally enamored with the idea of the kind of system Erdoğan and his advisers want. This is where President Gül comes into the picture in a way that must be deeply irritating for Erdoğan.
The problem for Erdoğan is that Gül is opposed to the idea of an executive presidency. He has suggested in the past, when the topic was not upfront on the agenda as it is today, that Turkey should try and improve its present system by raising the standard of democracy, rather than engaging in political adventurism by moving into uncharted waters.
The fact that Gül is increasingly stressing the need for advanced democracy for Turkey based on European standards is also telling as at a time when Erdoğan is bringing his own democratic credentials increasingly under scrutiny. His advocacy of capital punishment is just the latest case in point.
Gül’s remarks are also leading many people to believe that he will not simply step aside in 2014. He is too young and too politically engaged to do this while others move ahead. Those close to Erdoğan now are actively worried that Gül will put himself up for the job again and run in the presidential elections in 2014.
If Gül does this it will pose a serious obstacle for Erdoğan, since even polls conducted by companies considered close to the AKP are indicating that the public would prefer to see Gül as president. There is also the risk for Erdoğan that any constitutional change aimed at facilitating the emergence of an executive presidency in Turkey will be opposed by Gül with the powers he already has.
As matters stand Gül is on record using words which indicate that a new Constitution should be supported by all elements of society, and not just a specific party or social group. This is akin to saying no to an executive presidency model for Turkey given that there is no party other than the AKP that supports this.
There is still time until 2014 for new and unexpected developments to occur. The point, however, is that Erdoğan sees now that the rose he is reaching for has thorns. There is the possibility that he could very well end up becoming president under the present system, while Gül goes on to become a strong and truly democratic prime minister.
This is Turkey, where anything is possible.